Touch is an essential thing. We human beings require it. But our cultural attitudes, particularly in Western society, have only been getting more narrowed and conflicting. By disappearing further and further into our devices we not only starve ourselves of the critical bonding that touch provides but we also risk losing our familiarity and comfort with touch all together. By making dating apps our primary access to physical contact we relegate all touch to the dating sphere, over-sexualising it and strangling away the space for simple social and connecting touch which only deepens our sense of isolation.
Rather than broadening our experiences and perceptions of touch we are becoming more guarded and distrustful of what little contact we do have. That there is a growing industry of people offering their services as professional platonic snugglers is a very clear indicator we are truly losing touch with touch.
Touch is crucial to our physical health.
Study after study shows how intensely necessary physical connection is to our development and well-being. As adults even minimal regular touch can have enormous impact on our quality of life by lowering blood pressure, strengthening our immune system, and improving medical recovery times.
For children, especially in the first two years, the impacts of touch deprivation can be catastrophic and potentially permanent. In the 1970s orphanages in Romania were so disastrously understaffed they were unable to, among other things, provide even basic nurturing touch. As a result the children developed not only neuro-psychological problems such as severe anxiety and attachment disorders but their physical growth was stunted, their immune systems were decimated, and their gastro-intestinal failed to develop properly. Touch was identified as a central factor because in some cases volunteers were able to go in an provide just thirty minutes a day of basic physical interaction, simple hugging and limb manipulations, and the developmental damages were completely reversed. This only worked, however, if the intervention happened in the first two years of life.
If no intervention occurred before they turned two then the physical damages were permanent.
Touch is vital for our mental and emotional health.
Living in a world and culture which continues to favor technology and convenience above human interaction we may be growing more globally connected on intellectual levels but we are losing the basic physical contact we desperately need. The more we allow ourselves to get trapped within the purely internal world of our devices the more isolated and withdrawn we become, and our exhaustively hectic work schedules do not help. It is far too easy for even perfectly fit, able, socially engaged people to suddenly find themselves going days, weeks, months, or more without simple nurturing contact.
Even small amounts of casual bonding touch can lower stress levels, improve feelings of self-esteem and self-worth, and greatly increases our sense of belonging. Lack of touch is repeatedly linked to drastic increases in depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. Over twenty years, and counting, as a professional ballroom dance instructor I have seen firsthand the transformative and healing impact touch can have.
From increases in self-esteem to the healing and solidifying of relationships even a form of touch as structured as partner dancing can literally change people’s lives.
Touch improves our productivity.
Neither physical nor emotional health exists in a vacuum. Our ability to function, and hopefully, thrive in our daily lives is greatly affected by our degrees of health on all levels. Thus touch or the lack thereof can have a massive effect on our success and fulfilment. In 2010 Drs Keltner, Kraus, and Huang at UC Berkeley studied the games of all the NBA teams in the 2008–2009 season.
They indexed and scored the celebratory touch, pats and high fives and chest bumps and such, each of the teams shared during the game and found that the teams which shared the most celebratory touch in the first half of the season not only won more games in the second half of the season but they played more cooperatively as well. We could get into a bit of a ‘chicken and egg’ debate over whether a stronger and more bonded team touches more or if more touching leads to more strongly bonded team but the evidence still remains.
When touch is present performance and mutual appreciation increase.
Touch has countless different tones, textures, intentions, and contexts.
Touch is not a singular concept. There are as many different shades and tones of touch as there are different shades and tones of emotion, essentially infinite. Even though our social and psychological awareness has expanded and diversified over the last couple of decades our thoughts and attitudes around touch, particularly in Western cultures, hasn’t done the same. If anything our understanding of touch has narrowed, especially with regards to male touch.
Men are viewed as having only two reasons to touch someone, they want to fight with them or mate with them. Teammate camaraderie is given some minor latitudes but this grotesquely limited way of thinking damages everyone. Men are denied any space for simple tenderness and bonding, they are pressed to interpret anyone touching them as an act of either aggression or flirtation, and anyone dealing with them is relegated to feeling like prey. Women are given the freedom to be tender and nurturing but only with other women or with children.
Touch is a language which we seem bent on limiting to only two or three words, total.
All touch is emotional.
Both the act of touching and our perceptions of being touched are powerfully affected by our emotions. In part this is because touch is central to how we bond with one another, guided and shaped by the rituals and attitudes of our surrounding culture with regards to how those bonds are to be formed and expressed. But at a base biological level there is no physical sensation without emotional engagement.
All the different specialized nerve endings we have throughout our bodies, specialized for things like temperature or pressure or pain or sexual pleasure, send their information to two different parts of our brains simultaneously. The factual somatosensory cortex which assesses which part of us is being touched, in what way, and how intensely, and to the emotional posterior insula which reacts to the degree of pleasure or pain and to the intensity. Touch is a sensory experience but one that is always replete with emotion. We interpret and react to touch emotionally and we react to its denial and deprivation the same way.
There are certainly those who abuse their privilege of access to touch and vigilance against this is important and necessary but the villainizing and shunning of all social touch is not the answer and is fact incredibly harmful. ‘No touch’ policies for those who work with children are well intended and aimed at protection but not only do they deprive children of the bonding touch they deeply require but it also expresses a tacit rejection and fosters an attitude of distrust with regards to touch all of which can give rise to all the damages we’ve already talked about.
We are creatures of emotion and as our emotions are intrinsically linked to our experiences of touch how we treat one enormously affects the other.
So what can we do to foster more touch in our lives?
With friends and family make hugging a part of greeting and parting — even just a light embrace offers all the benefits and positives of bonding touch, and opens the door for a stronger embrace should the need ever arise.
Cultivate a handshake habit — beyond friends and family greet others with a calm and comfortable handshake. No gripping or squeezing or aggressive jerking, not a contest or an overture. Just a light clasp offers a socially acceptable and casual connection.
Become a practitioner of the sociable ‘pat’ — a brief gentle touch of the forearm or outer shoulder can both bond and relax. At times, sharing a laugh or comforting someone in sadness, it can also be deeply meaningful. Not a clasp, clapping, or stroking motion, just lightly lay the palm and relaxed fingers for a brief moment either on the mid forearm or outer curve of the shoulder.
Return the embraces of children — protecting children from abuse and mistreatment is important be we cannot starve them of the connecting and bonding and nurturing they so desperately need in those crucial early years. We should never force affection on them, or anyone, but we should always return it if only with a brief squeeze.
Respect other’s wishes but also offer — people have varying degrees of comfort and desire for touch, adults or children, but there is never any harm in the offer provided that offer comes without conditions or ulterior motives.
Ask when we are in need — sometimes we simply need a hug so establish permission to ask with as many people in your life as are open and willing. The asking might feel awkward but the effects of deprivation can be far worse.
Engage in activities which give touch a less daunting context — dance events or classes, martial arts, Reiki or massage treatments, sports, community theatre, all sorts of environments can involve touch as part of a general activity. The activity provides the context and permission, just look for opportunities organized by those who foster respect, inclusion, and safety.
We are social and emotional creatures of which touch is an integral part. Countless studies have illustrated both the benefits of its presence and the devastating consequences of its lack, something as simple as a handshake or touch of the shoulder can literally be lifesaving. We need to welcome, encourage, and expand our understanding of touch not restrict and reduce it to only the sexual and dangerous.